Five Senses: A Short Work of Fiction

She died on a Tuesday, before her nail appointment, but after electrolysis. Karen remembered the way the homeless man shuffled his feet, one of his shoes cut in two. He’d pieced them together with what looked like a metal hanger. She thought him quiet clever, but didn’t tell him so. The man smelled of lemons and piss. The lemons were from her childhood, but the piss belonged to him.

The sound of the train seemed real or at least she believed it to be. She didn’t know why she would choose that as her last sound.
“You chose your favorite things, which is how you know you’re dying. If all five senses are hit with the things in life you loved most simultaneously you’re a goner. Of course, by the time you realize what’s happening it’s too late.”
Eve, the receptionist, told her this as she sat waiting for whatever dead people waited for. The soft hum of muzak buzzed above and the chairs were a light maple covered with nappy red material which had started to pill. The only other person in the waiting room, an elderly woman, knew the generic melody which she seemed to think gave her right to hum along. She weaved in and out of tune as Karen waited to see whoever resided in the office space that lay just beyond the sliding glass enclosure that held Eve.
Karen had felt the soft caress of her dead son. He’d died at the age of three as they sat fishing. His small body simply fell backward in the boat. They’d said SIDS, which unbeknownst to Karen could strike even children who were fully awake. Just as he pulled away, the taste of hot dogs caught her so off guard that she’d stumbled into the homeless man walking in front of her. The hot dogs were from her childhood days where the hibachi was used on their old wooden boat.
She heard the sound of singing though it came from nowhere. Karen, so frightened, wondered if the homeless man had heard. That was all she remembered.
“I didn’t see a thing,” she told the older woman who had since stopped humming. She introduced herself as Rose and she’d seen the face of her mother as she lay in the middle of city hall dying of a brain aneurysm.
“I didn’t even get to pay my parking fine. I’m eighty-seven years old and got my first darned ticket. Who knew you couldn’t park in front of your own house at night.”
“I’m sure you can contest.” The women laughed at the silliness of trying to fight the fine from wherever they were.
“You’re so young Karen. I’ve lived my life—but you—it hardly seems fair. Maybe this is a mistake.”
“I thought the same thing. I asked Eve if they’ll see me to discuss things before they send me off.”
The intercom sounded, “Rose Dubus. Mrs. Rose Dubus. Please go through the red door.” Rose stood up and offered Karen her hand. She smiled and approached Eve who opened the door and stepped aside. Karen tried to peek at what lie on the other side, but saw nothing other than the back of Rose’s silver head as the red door closed. Her wait continued while Eve got up and grabbed her bag.
“Shift change. This is Norma,” all she said as she too hurried through the red door.
“I’m waiting for the boss,” Karen said unsure of how to continue. “I think there’s been a mistake.”
Norma only nodded and smiled as if she’d heard this same thing a million times. Karen wondered when the wait would be over. She read several magazines and excused herself to go to the ladies room, though Norma hardly seemed to notice. Karen looked around to find her pocket book hoping to balance her checkbook. Once they realized this was a mistake, some temporary error made by a mixed up universe she would be back to the real world. Back to paying bills online, cooking TV dinners, rushing to work while the rest of the world seemed content to do nothing. It wasn’t behind any of the chairs or in the bathroom, though this didn’t surprise her as she didn’t remember reapplying her lipstick as she always did when she made her trip to the ladies room.
“You can always take the time to reapply. A woman without lipstick is like a woman without a brassiere.” The voice of her mother said from some small part of her brain that held such random and outdated memories.
 “I’ve been sitting here for some time,” Karen said annoyed at the woman Norma who continued to wear the headset while the hum of crackling silence obviously stood on the other end.
“Are they busy? I’m the only one here. I don’t mean to complain but it’s been hours since Rose was allowed to go in. She’s probably sitting down with a nice book and glass of wine by now.”
“I’m sorry, Karen, but you must wait as long as it takes.”
Karen moved back to her seat and plopped herself down on the hard cushions that had no give, no bounce. The deep rust color now looked crimson.
***
Along the tracks, she’d remembered seeing the dark red. The homeless man had fallen, no that wasn’t right. She was behind him and he’d pushed her...no. But she remembered seeing him, remembered the smell of him mixed with her childhood lemons. He’d been singing. He said something and reached for her—Karen tried to move away. She didn’t want to be touched by him, didn’t want his scent to be on her as she—
But why was she at the train station? Her car was parked in the lot. Karen had no reason to go to the train, no reason to be near the homeless man, no reason to see the lights as the train pulled into the Hattonfield stop.
In the lights, eyes, blue and full of life until....
“I love the train,” he’d said as he‘d pulled his little plastic dog on the small yellow string. His eyes matched the light blue stripes in his rugby shirt. He was small for his age, but didn’t seem to mind. He talked of football and sports to impress his father; though she felt even at four, he knew his size may someday prevent him from playing.
“Me too. Why don’t you hold my hand so you don’t fall? The train is fun, but we need to be careful.”
He was a watchful child, not like his sister, who would often hurt herself, or some other defenseless child by carelessly casting aside the rules of safety.
The dog clamored alongside them as she tossed their money into the machine that beeped allowing them to enter through the metal turn style. He picked up the toy and cautiously made his way to the platform with his mother. The smell of urine and popcorn competed with one another, as a homeless man sang, played a harmonica and clapped his hands.
“Why do his shoes have holes?” The little boy asked.
The man’s shoes were held together with what looked like the remains of a metal hanger. Karen sighed unsure of how to answer, as her mind turned things over, the homeless man got closer in an effort to entertain her boy. The boy held tightly to his mother’s leg and the man retreated slightly.
 “I’m sorry miss, I meant no harm.” 
She smiled and held up her hand as if to say she understood. Karen could feel Lucas pull away a bit as the man walked toward the opposite end of the platform. She picked him up and kissed him, she could smell lemon, the antiseptic scrub from her pocketbook. He had asked for it in the car claiming that his hands were dirty. Clean and safe, that was her son. One day he hoped to be a superhero, she would settle for a doctor she often joked with her husband.
The sound of the two teenage boys as they yelled at each other came through in waves and drew Karen out of her daydream. When she turned to reach for Lucas, he was gone. He had moved down the platform toward the homeless man with the harmonica. Karen walked toward him and then one of the boys began to run. He’d taken something from his friend and was in full stride. Karen called for Lucas and as he stopped to turn and look at her, the boy tackled his friend and the game of keep away came to a halt. Just as the large boy wrapped his arms around his friend in an attempt to get back whatever it was that he’d lost, her son feel backward and Karen moved toward Lucas, to grab him and he landed. She heard a hard thud and watched as his tiny body broke, bones grinding together in a symphony of a pain from which she needed to rescue him.
 Karen didn’t scream, for that was a waste of time, an effort in futility. What was required was action. She began to lower herself down, trying to keep away from the electrically charged third rail. The two teenage boys only looked on, their mouths open and their eyes wide. The silence and warmth surrounded her just as she was about to touch down on the track with her feet. She thought she could hoist her son up to one of the boys, but the timing was wrong. The sound of the whistle and the rush of air as the train raced toward the tunnel with its yellow lights casting shadows on the dingy concrete walls of the station….she froze.
The homeless man, Les, reached down and pulled her out. The last thing she saw was the train as it ran over her son’s body. Lucas had curled into the fetal position, as he had inside of her only four years before. No, the last thing she saw was her favorite thing, her son’s eyes, blue and frightened.
***
She’d never intended to go to her electrolysis appointment. Karen had driven to the station and walked along the platform to the spot where weeks before two teenage boys had played an innocent game of keep away as a kindly homeless man played his harmonica. She set her bag down when she heard the rumble from below the earth. If she hadn’t yelled for him to stop, for him to turn to her…..the entire incident was inexcusable.
Her daughter and husband would be fine without her, but her son had always needed her. She felt the homeless man behind her, could smell the urine that he could never wash from him, the smell of the streets and it was now a part of him. She knew this because it was the only thing she could smell since he’d saved her weeks ago, this same man with a harmonica that hung, but somehow never fell from his torn and faded right pants pocket. The harmonica, which had intrigued her little boy. If she missed this train, she would never have the chance to catch another. They would lock her away saying that she was a danger to herself. She dropped her bag and jumped. She felt the man’s hand as he grazed her with it. He tried to reach her, to save her, but this time he missed.
***
Karen walked toward Norma. “My son didn’t die on a boat?”
Norma shook her head, “The mind can play some silly tricks in order to cover up the truth. Though the truth always finds you, eventually. I think you’ve waited long enough.” Norma held open the red door and stepped back. 

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